Sinclair Sherrill Goes To War
By: Gaither Stewart
Cane spears, rat poison, BB guns, M191 8A2 machine guns. Such were the moments of Sinclair Sherrill’s life. His mother told reporters that she always knew it would end in tragedy. Though we grew up on the same street, Sinclair and I were never friends and I eventually came to understand what Mrs. Sherrill meant. While most of us kids spent our time on the sports fields, her son Sinclair led his few play companions in mean games which ended badly.
Sinclair was a complex boy, his mother told the lawyers. For example? The rabbits, for example. He once had six. They were snow white with pink noses, three male and three female. He fed them carrots and lettuce but they never reproduced. That made Sinclair furious, so he slapped them, threw rocks at them in their cage and stopped feeding them. One night they all died: their ears turned pink, black sores had grown in the cavities and they were bleeding around their eye sockets.
When the lawyers asked if Sinclair killed them, his mother said, ‘I think so … tortured them too. That boy was always sick,” she added. “It had to end tragically.”
It seemed to the boy that he had always been nine, his mother said. Never older. Never younger. Just nine. And big for his age … when he was that age. Before he turned nine he and other kids played Indians—he despised cowboys because they acted sissy and always won in a ‘fair’ duel. But he too won; at first with cane spears. In their games he was the mean Cheyenne who bossed the Cherokee. ‘You pretend to hoe your potato fields and I will pretend to attack you and rob your crops.’ His pretense was never wholly make-believe. He was a nine-year old Cheyenne warrior. One day he hit a seven-year old Cherokee farmer in the eye with a cane spear; it went into the boy’s eye but doctors saved his eyesight.
Since Sinclair liked BB air rifles better than cane spears, the kids warred with their BB guns that shot metallic ball projectiles the size of birdshot. Sometimes one or the other got stung by a pellet and Sinclair would yell, ‘You’re dead.’ He liked to pretend he was a German sniper killing British soldiers on the beach. I believed back then that he always aimed at the face. Still, though hitting a boy’s eye with a spear was perfect, it happened too seldom. So the best of all was killing birds with BBs. His air rifle killed sparrows easily; one day he killed a Robin Red Breast … but he gave it a decent burial, closed his eyes and pretended to pray over the grave as his mother would have done.
The lawyers from Washington were especially curious about the BB guns. Sinclair’s mother had always been afraid of lawyers but she admitted the obvious: ‘That boy was sick for guns.’ She said the other boys got bored with BB guns … but not Sinclair. Then disillusioned with the BB guns that wouldn’t kill the mean Blue Jays, Sinclair too stopped shooting. But he still carried the weapon slung on his back like a symbol of power. Those words pleased the lawyers who grinned at each other and nodded.
Sinclair and his mother—his father’s whereabouts was a mystery—lived two blocks downhill from me. Still, I hardly ever saw him, so to me his real life was more hearsay than fact. But wild speculation circulated and kids gossiped about Sin, as some called him. There was something scary about him.
When Sinclair was about thirteen he got a part-time job with the home delivery department of the city newspaper. His job was to collect the weekly payment from subscribers in our part of town and … then about $1.50. The exchange went smoothly if the subscriber immediately reached into his pocket and paid correctly and Sin could check his name in black on his list. But even a brief hesitation could degenerate into conflict. Any excuse for not paying up enraged him. If a man at the door said he would pay the next day, Sinclair forced his way inside. I imagined him red-faced and breathing hard. Then he would yell: ‘You’re suspended. Your account is canceled.’
UNLESS it was a woman. If she paid, he pocketed her payment and checked her name in black. But if she couldn’t pay he just walked away sulkily, warning her ‘to get it ready by tomorrow.’ The reality was that Sinclair felt awkward and helpless around all girls and women. Girls at school giggled about him. He knew that. But female meant mother. And Mother reflected the proper life. Normality. A word, however that he probably never even knew. Unpredictable mothers! he must have thought. Indefinable. He both despised and respected his own mother. But men and boys? They were his missing father. The deserter. The enemy. He aimed for their eyes.
When on Friday he met the area chief for the weekly accounting—his boss himself recounted—Sinclair handed over the receipts and the list of names and addresses. Two of them were marked through in red ink.
‘They didn’t pay so I canceled their subscriptions,’ Sinclair said proudly. For Sin no violations of the rules passed with impunity. ‘No more problems with them.’
‘You WHAT?’, the area chief said. ‘I work my butt off signing up subscribers and you cut them for late payments. You can’t handle this job … boy, you’re just not normal. Sherrill, you’re fired!’ The area manager later related that Sinclair’s aimed his pencil at his face for a few seconds, then turned and left without a word.
Now although the autism disorder had been identified and analyzed at the beginning of the twentieth century, it was still uncommon for parents to realize that their withdrawn child could be affected by even the milder form described by the German scientist Hans Asperger: Asperger’s Syndrome. The cases he described were highly intelligent boys who had trouble with social interactions and had specific obsessive interests. Most certainly a fitting description of Sinclair Sherrill who, I believed, found the world sick and desired above all to kill it … striking them in the eyes with spears or BB guns.
Years passed and I lost sight of Sinclair. From time to time I must have passed him in high school corridors but I was busy with sports and girls and part-time jobs and forgot what he even looked like. So when one day on my way home I crossed paths with a boy of my age, dressed in dark clothes and wearing a brightly colored bow tie. I stopped and stared at the clean-cut looking sixteen-year old who didn’t even glance at me. It was Sinclair Sherrill, old Sin. Dressed in black. And a bow tie! Looked like a flower around his neck and I remembered how he had hated sissy flowers.
It happened that my best friend and I had taken to sneaking into the city’s main movie theater, The Plaza, just after the intermission during the last performance of the evening. The box office had closed and we entered through a lateral emergency door into the darkness of the theater where we saw only the second half of the films. One evening everything had gone smoothly and we’d found good seats in the half empty theater when suddenly a shadow carrying a flashlight leaned over us and asked for our tickets.
‘Lost it’, I answered and laughed. ‘Then you have to leave, now,’ the usher said. That usher was Sinclair in his bow tie. ‘Nah, leave us alone, Sin. We didn’t even see the first half. Besides nobody saw us.’
Sinclair answered in a fiercely authoritative voice: ‘I did.’ His voice rising, he continued to order us out until other spectators began shushing him and he moved away. But quickly he was back, with the manager, who ordered us to leave or he would call the police.
‘Squealer, traitor’ we said over and over to Sinclair as they escorted us out the front door.
Then a couple of years passed during which I don’t recall seeing Sinclair. He didn’t exist in my world. But after happened what happened, I realized that his was what I would call today a dystopian world … not a stormy sea but a tightly bound world like a New England pond with no outlet.
One day after school, I was sitting in a window seat on the school bus on the way home. Suddenly, a storm of blows rained down on my head and a strong hand clawed at my nose and eyes. Not a word was spoken, nor did I even see the attacker until the driver and others dragged him off me. It was Sinclair, dark and silent and sullenly murderous, looking back at me over his shoulder … and blinking his eyes over and over like a maddened bull ready to kill.
No, the past was not dead. Maybe it never is. At eighteen most people don’t dwell on one event forever. I talked openly to everyone about it but my wounds healed and I myself wanted to forget it. In fact, I did put it away into some dark recess of my mind. If anyone asked me what I had done to him to cause the assault, I just shrugged. Sinclair vanished from my life and I was never to see him again. Yet, later, I realized that I never forgot him.
I was a student at a university in another state at home during Easter holidays when the lawyers from Washington came. Military lawyers. Now at this point the author enters the story to explain that the following lines are essential to comprehension of the final part of this story which the reader will have understood is based on personal history. One of the lawyers explained that unfortunately the end of World War Two did not mark the end of conflict in Asia, that the whole continent was in tumult. Another muttered some bullshit about our “boys” over there in China to help the people against the Communists trying to take over their country … and the world.
By this time, I, the narrator, knew this was all a crock. I had learned from lectures by a progressive professor that China at that time was divided between U.S. supported Nationalist China led by Chiang-Kai-shek and his conservative Kuomintang party—the professor called them Fascists—and Communist China headed by Mao Zedong. China’s civil war was leading the way to hot and cold wars throughout the world ….
God knows where it would all lead, the most loquacious of the Washington lawyers philosophized. One country after another Asia falling to Communism. Only then did the reason that they had sought me became clear. People of my town had told them of the incident on the school bus. It turned out that Sinclair Sherrill had become an exemplary Marine and assigned to an assault squad on a gunboat patrolling China’s Yangste River. The gunboat cruised the waters of the magnificent Yangste from the river mouth back and forth inland as far as Chongoing, the Nationalists’ capital. Recently, the lawyers explained, there had been a shooting on board the gunboat. A mass shooting. And who but Sinclair, our native Sin, did the shooting. ‘Eight dead in their bunks, three of them shot in the eyes,’ one lawyer underlined while the other two peered closely at my face for my reactions. ‘Now we don’t want a blight on the U.S. Marines in these times and besides this fine boy has bad psychological problems … probably reaching far back in his life. He, uh, doesn’t deserve punishment. He’s one sick young man. That boy needs care.’
‘Now you and Mrs. Sherrill have both told us about the rabbits and the spears and the BB guns and … also the fight you had with him. And after all your face does look somewhat deformed … especially your cheekbones and one eye smaller than the other!’
‘That crooked face will look very good in court!’ one of the lawyers exclaimed.
‘Now it’s this part about the eyes that mystifies us,’ the talkative lawyer continued. ‘Why the eyes? So please, tell us what you know about Sherrill and eyes.’
I repeated what I’d heard about the rabbits and the spears and BB guns … everybody here knew those things about Sinclair. Also about his attack on me. I emphasized that there was no fight. Just his surprise attack. That pleased them ; they looked at each other, nodding and smiling. They concurred that Old Sin was crazy as a loon. Now their task was offering proof of it in the court martial. If they did their job well, there was to be no blight on the United States Marine Corps.
‘Well, my face will never be the same,’ I added spontaneously … to their delight and to my regret for giving them a hand.
Enough! I’d given them enough to save Sinclair Sherrill. But they will have to straightjacket me and drag me to a court martial. I’m not going to help them also save the fucking Marine Corps that enlisted Sinclair who everybody here knows was sick.
The Marines trained him, armed him and confined him on a small boat with a squad of men who didn’t understand him and whom he hated as he did me, as he did the rabbits and the sissy cowboys. I didn’t tell the lawyers that already in the eleventh century William the Conqueror used blinding as punishment for rebellion. So likewise Sin. He went for the eyes.